N4T Investigators: Wildfire accountability - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

N4T Investigators: Wildfire accountability

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Rapidly spreading out of control, the Sawmill Fire burned for nearly a week southeast of Green Valley. By the time the flames were extinguished, nearly 47,000 acres were scorched and $5 million had been spent fighting the fire.

Started by an off-duty border patrol agent and an exploding target, the agent's name hasn't been released and, so far, no charges have been filed.

"We do not discuss any details or information until the case has gone through the criminal process and a sentencing has occurred," Heidi Schewel with the U.S. Forest Service said.

Wildfires like Sawmill are not only costly to contain, but also to investigate once the smoke has cleared.

"Some investigations are very short and can be quickly solved others can be very complex with many many factors contributing to what the story is and those can be quite a bit more expensive so there's no borderline, there's no average," Schewel said.

In June of 2002, two separate fires combined to form the Rodeo-Chediski fire. Less than a month later, nearly 470,000 acres had burned. At that time it was largest fire in state history. Containing it cost more than $43 million.

Arsonist of the Rodeo portion, Leonard Gregg received the maximum 10 year sentence for intentionally starting the fire. He was ordered to pay nearly $30 million in restitution. A sum that will likely never be paid off.

The Chediski Fire was started by Valinda Jo Elliott when she lit a fire to signal a helicopter for help after getting stranded. She was never charged.

One year later flames tore through the Summerhaven community on Mt. Lemmon. $17 million was spent battling the blaze that burned nearly 85,000 acres. 340 homes and businesses were destroyed. One of the homes belonged to Carrie Reitz, a cabin that her husband built in the 1970's.

"It's amazing how it brings back," Reitz said. "We were just devastated, we were sad because we weren't alone. Everybody up there had lost an immense amount of family memories."

The fire was deemed to be human caused, but no one was ever formally charged with starting it.

"Some investigations never close unless we can specifically pinpoint a cause and a responsible party then a case may go unsolved," Schewel said.

A frustrating reality, but Reitz tries to focus on the positive.

"It's past, you can't dwell on that stuff, it's not healthy," Reitz said. "We lost a lot of stuff and things but we didn't lose family members or friends."

Then in May of 2011, an unattended campfire in the Apache Sitegreaves National Forest became what is still the largest wildfire in state history. The Wallow Fire scorched more than half a million acres in Arizona and New Mexico. $79-million-dollars was spent fighting the flames, leaving behind more than $100 million in damage.

Cousins Caleb and David Malboeuf pleaded guilty in federal court, but only spent a weekend in jail. The cousins were ordered to pay $3.7 million in restitution only a fraction of the damage caused.

"If a party is found to be responsible they can be held responsible for expenses associated with suppressing the wildfire," Schewel said.

But officials with the U.S. Forest Service tell the News 4 Tucson Investigators that there is no specific criteria for restitution amounts. The U.S. Attorney's Office prosecutes criminal cases for fires started on federal land. In most cases where a conviction is made, the restitution ordered is significantly less than the damage caused.

Of the three fires we looked at, the combined cost of containing them was $139 million. Just under $34 million in combined restitution was ordered. Also, the Forest Service estimates that in less than a decade, fighting wildfires could cost nearly $2 billion per year.

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